When people think of Colorado, they often picture snow-covered alpine peaks. Yet this ecosystem covers only about 3% of Colorado’s landscape. Alpine tundra is found at the highest elevations in our state – usually above 11,000 feet. Here the long winters, abundant snowfall, high winds, and short summers create an environment too harsh for permanent human habitation.
Characteristic alpine animals include the pika, marmot, rosy finch, and ptarmagin. These species have adapted to cold climates with harsh conditions, and are active in the alpine year-round. One of the world’s rarest butterflies, the Uncompahgre fritillary, lives amongst the dwarf willows at altitudes above 13,000 feet and is found on just a few of Colorado’s high peaks. There are also nine rare and Colorado-endemic plants found only in the alpine zone.
Most of the alpine is federally owned (managed primarily by the U.S. Forest Service) and much of it is in wilderness status. Old privately-owned mining claims are scattered throughout, but there are very few active mines operating today. In general, alpine tundra in Colorado is in excellent condition and highly protected.
The primary threat to this system is global climate change, which could have significant impacts on this system in the future. Impacts from recreation are a distant second. The Colorado Natural Heritage Program and The Nature Conservancy consider the alpine tundra ecosystem to be effectively conserved. For more details see our Biodiversity Scorecard.